Comment and insight on journalism issues from Press Gazette's guest writers

Fleet Street Fox on the Leveson Report: The devil is in the detail

Newsrooms everywhere breathed out.

“We can live with that,” said the optimists. “Could have been worse,” said the execs. And the hacks who remember the other times when last orders were threatened at the Last Chance Saloon cynically waited for the long grass to make its usual appearance.

But then we hadn’t read it, and nor had Hugh. Nor had Ed, who immediately demanded the whole thing be made law yesterday. Only Dave, who had read it or at least had someone read it for him, seemed to be reluctant.

Within three days someone had read it for Ed, too, and he changed his mind to back the “central recommendations” while admitting some of the small print was impossible.

So as a hack who’s watched for 18 months as our trade gets its face stamped into the gutter we’re otherwise quite used to while hoping it would all go away, it’s probably time I read it too.

And it’s as you’d expect. All that evidence written down in as a boring a way as possible, creating an image of a trade I can’t recognise even if I squint and turn it upside down.

And we don’t need to rehearse it because we all remember it – Sally Dowler reliving the moment she thought Milly was alive, Kate McCann saying there was no thought for her as a mother, Paul McMullan sneering that privacy was for paedos.

It was wonderful theatre, full of pathos, and well conducted by barristers who questioned the editors who came before them far more thoroughly than they did the accusers, and didn’t seem to mind Jonathan King lecturing anyone on morality.

It was hard, amidst all that, to remember most papers bent over backwards to make it plain the McCanns being named suspects in their daughters’ disappearance was a travesty, and helped raised six figure sums to search for her.

Hard to ask, publicly, if even without phone-hacking when Milly’s voicemails deleted themselves automatically Sally might not have had the same mistaken belief her daughter was safe.

And harder still to make anyone believe that Paul McMullan’s not been seen in Fleet Street the whole time I’ve worked in it, and that half the evidence was so dated it should have been given in Latin.

Most of the report is an extended telling-off, and to the extent that is deserved then it’s fair enough. The PCC had become a toothless old auntie and a tougher, bitier regulator must be found. There’s not a single journalist I know who’d disagree.

But the devil is in the detail, and the detail of Leveson is the bit which will muzzle the Press as effectively as Hannibal Lecter strapped to a luggage trolley.

Leveson wants this backed up by law which is plain wrong, because there’s no bill ever passed by Parliament that wasn’t tinkered with later. Hacked Off and other campaigners may feel the suggested law is fine, but it’s the law it may mutate into which is why it should never happen.

He calls for the Press to have the regulation of the BBC, without the rights it enjoys of being publicly chartered, publicly-funded and publicly-beloved. And just as well, because if that model were to be followed with newspapers we’d end up with Pravda. If I am to be answerable to Ofcom which is answerable to the government the only answer I have for them is unprintable.

When Leveson toured newsrooms before the inquiry began he sat, at one point, on a newsdesk as a junior executive scrolled through the news wires. He said to her: “Aren’t you worried other papers will publish the same thing?” She tried to explain, but he couldn’t grasp it.

He seems to have got no further in understanding how newspapers work since then, as his report also calls for the Data Protection Act to apply to all information gathered by journalists for their stories.

Firstly, that information is held by the individual journos and not the newspaper so it’s unworkable, and secondly if anyone made a request under that law to see inside my contacts book I’d tell them to foxtrot oscar on principle.

Elsewhere, Leveson wants journalists to be compelled by law to reveal their sources (get knotted!) and says police should stop all off-the-record briefings. It’s not been outlawed yet but it’s already happening, and in practice means the internet filling with misinformation about the latest Savile inquiry arrest without any correction or guidance which can be invaluable to the public good.

For example I was told yesterday about a child abuse investigation where police think a relative is responsible, but could not give guidance to a newspaper asking questions about another possibility. The paper therefore printed things which, had it known more of the background, it would never have done.

Leveson’s suggestion means crime reporters can’t take a DI for a pint, something which has never corrupted a single sensible soul, and it will also mean that next time a senior officer is in the pocket of someone they refuse to investigate, we don’t get the low-level leaks by disgruntled underlings which, for example, led to the phone hacking scandal.

Leveson ignores the obvious risk of journalists being corrupted by their contacts, which is just as serious an issue as when it happens the other way around.

He also ignores the fact that, PCC aside, it is the old system and laws under which journalists are being arrested and prosecuted. So thoroughly that I heard this week old school friends who happen to have a public sector job are being treated as fellow suspects.

There is one reasonable bit, the introduction of a conscience clause giving journalists the right to refuse a newsdesk instruction if they think it’s unethical. It means you can’t be sacked for saying no, but in an industry increasingly reliant upon freelancers, contract staff and casuals it’s hard to see what practical difference it will make.

There is no call for regular law refreshers. No explanation of why 30,000 print journalists need to be curtailed when only a few dozen face charges. No talk of reform to 13th century defamation. No suggestion for formal ethics training – I learned my ethics from chief reporters on local papers, something which works only if they’re ethical themselves.

In all, aside from a better PCC there’s not a lot to be said for Leveson beyond some great TV moments and bringing us the word ‘pellucid’.

The fact is that in this country we have a Press that is only as free as our laws allow. We are kettled by the state in all directions, while those who can afford it abuse the laws and PCC to bully and intimidate journalists into silence.

That creates a mindset of the law being something journalists learn to navigate and distrust, with the obvious result that when the rules are broken it can be seen, by some, as a badge of honour. Complaints become a game of cowboys and Indians, with innocent bystanders getting caught in the crossfire.

There is only one way to overcome that, and it is for the law to start working for the Press rather than against us, allowing people like ex Home Secretary David Blunkett to accuse The Observer of harassment for asking him questions he didn’t like.

If there must be any statute for the Press it should be a cast-iron guarantee of our freedoms, alongside the definition of our responsibilities. Free from being corrupted by others, free from proprietorial meddling and political schmoozing, and free to do the job we need to without fear or favour.

And I’ll say this because no-one else did in 600 witness statements: Journalists aren’t psychopaths. None of us do this job for the money or glory, because there’s little of either, and still less because we thought it would make the world a worse place.

We do it, principally, because we think someone ought to. We are the custodians of freedoms not just for newspapers but everyone else too, and if it is the journalists who came before us who got us into this mess then it is up to us to get us out.

Underpinning the good we do is a far better option than legislating against us, which will leave us with no option but to find a workable business plan to annoy people online, where we’d have more readers and fewer restrictions and… hang on…

Tags: 

Sign up for our free weekly digital magazine, Press Gazette Journalism Weekly, and daily newsletter
To contact Press Gazette with a story call 0207 936 6433
or email pged@pressgazette.co.uk
To advertise, please call 0207 936 6764.